“When was this a good idea?” I wonder as I fumble with my jarring, buzzing alarm, click snooze, and wince when I see the time is 4:45 a.m. Heavily considering dozing off for five, ten, maybe fifteen minutes, I remember the reason I decided to set the ungodly alarm in the first place. The gears in my mind begin to turn, shaking off dust and cobwebs while I blindly tie up my mosquito net and frantically feel under the bed for my hiking-boots. Instead, I make contact with the familiar, smooth leather of my journal, a book filled with countless browned and tattered pages scrawled with my experiences in Rwamahwa. Sitting on the edge of my bed, I grin in the darkness as I think of Nzeyimana’s goofy hat, Aristo trying to teach me Rwandan dance, all of the school-kids running with outstretched arms. I place journal and pen into my Nike string bag, zip up my rain-jacket, unlock the heavy steel door, and step out into the cool, morning air.
The moon hides behind thick clouds and casts dreary gray shadows on the deserted bakeries and general stores that line the dirt road at the center of town. Whenever I decide to buy bread or avocados, children drop what they’re doing and sprint over, unabashedly shouting “mzungu!” while bicycle drivers swarm, insisting it’s in my best interest to pay them two thousand Rwandan francs for a ride to Nyirangarama. In a few hours, women wearing traditionally patterned pagnes draped over their shoulders will pick leaves gently from the vast tea fields and carry heaping baskets on their heads to market. Men, strong from farming the fields and tending to livestock, will cut sugarcane with machetes, tie the stalks with twine, and wheel carts past the bridge site.
But now, wind rolls through Rwamahwa’s empty market, fog shrouds the tea fields, and only one person walks along the uneven dirt paths leading to the mountains. I pass the school where the choir sings and chants in Kinyarwanda, where teens play basketball on a cracked, dusty concrete court with net-less rims made of bent rebar. At the base of the mountain, the bridge tiers stand resolutely on both sides of the river, but the silent eucalyptus forest looming behind towers in comparison. The trees’ roots extend deep into the terraced earth, a testament to the their ancient longevity, enduring the rainy seasons decade after decade, even when mud slides and rock crumbles away. They are the people of Rwanda: soft-spoken and reserved, quiet listeners, steadfast and stubborn to change, beautifully caring and humble, embracing tradition and family roots.
Gritting my teeth and digging my fingernails into the damp earth, I drag myself one step at a time up the jagged, steep slope to the top of the mountain. When my muscles burn for me to stop, I make a last ditch strain for a tree root, haul myself over the ledge, and roll over in exhaustion. From here on out, the steep slope flattens into delicate ferns and wildflowers with jagged stones protruding from the ground. I find the least jagged stone possible, slip off my string bag, place the journal on my lap, wondering how I can possibly describe something as abstract as the sunrise.
I want to describe Rwamahwa from the top of the mountain because one can see every aspect of what has become my home, from the tin-roofed houses to the oceans of tea. At dawn, impenetrable white clouds bury all of Rwamahwa to the point where I can only hear the engine of a single motorcycle humming in the distance and guess at where the soccer field might be. A dark, rippling sea of tall grasses and wildflowers wavers like ocean tides, ebbing and flowing with the gravity of the moon, which shines silver overhead. Hiding in the ocean of grass, a symphony of chatty, chirping birds argue back and forth while drones of moths, crickets, and grasshoppers buzz and vibrate. Above, mighty mountains watch over solemnly and unmoved, their peaks cloaked in wispy clouds, their faces glinting with grains of tin roofs sheltering dreaming villagers.
In the houses, villagers awaken to rooster calls and the groans of cows, pausing to stretch, yawn, and slip on sandals before getting water for breakfast. Flint sparks ignite a blue-hot flame beneath a small stove, beans swell and boil in the saucepan, and the bottom of the rice pot begins to sizzle. I hear music fill the houses and leak through the windows, along with one-sided conversations in Kinyarwanda, most likely mothers listing chores for the kids to complete after school. I draw long breaths of the pure, crisp, mountain air charged with revitalizing ozone that can only be found where the atmosphere begins to thin.
Focused, relaxed, sharpened, I gaze far to the east towards a saddle that dips between two mountain peaks as it begins to glow warm with pink sunrise. Like an inadvertent spill of watercolors over a white canvas, the pale pink glow melts and spreads across the sky, ultimately drying as streaked clouds. Scribbling in my journal, I can’t keep up as new sounds pierce the air, clouds dissipate from the valleys of tea below, and the sky intensifies above – all at the same time. Tired, hopeless, defeated, yet smiling, I lay down my heavy pen and savor the last moments of the sunrise by letting it take its natural course.
Pink deepens into orange, orange intensifies into yellow, and yellow shines bright on the western mountains, reflecting off of the tin houses and dousing the trees in rusty glow. I never could have imagined I would be sitting in Rwamahwa on a stone, watching and listening as humans and nature awakened together in peace. This gorgeous place I now call home continues to amaze, captivate, enchant, and surprise me at every turn with its countless perspectives, angles, and transformations. While baby Madina giggles and laughs, while Abraham regales me with his life-story from elementary school to college, while I mix concrete with Emmanuel and Nzeyimana at the bridge site, I will never forget the time I was awake while everyone else dreamed, the way Rwamahwa slept peacefully as the sun rose.